Crowdsourcing for science?

Last night, I and other attendees of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships 25th Anniversary Symposium in Boston were introduced to an interesting idea, courtesy of Clive Thompson, science writer extraordinaire for Wired and other outlets: linkurl:Write blogs; to get ideas. It's a basic concept. Thompson -- a surprisingly dapper (for a writer), well-coiffed, quick-talking presenter -- explained that he constantly feeds his blog,, becau

By | February 20, 2008

Last night, I and other attendees of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships 25th Anniversary Symposium in Boston were introduced to an interesting idea, courtesy of Clive Thompson, science writer extraordinaire for Wired and other outlets: linkurl:Write blogs; to get ideas. It's a basic concept. Thompson -- a surprisingly dapper (for a writer), well-coiffed, quick-talking presenter -- explained that he constantly feeds his blog,, because blogging is "highly promiscuous" -- meaning, you blog and link to another blog, then that person links to you in a future post, and so on. You find out who's linked to you (; ), check them out, and see other blogs by like-minded people, who might think about something you'd never considered before. Journalism is a bit like science: If someone works on your same idea and publishes first, your work is practically for naught. However, Thompson convinced his editors at Wired to let him post online some information about a column he was working on, asking for reader comments. He received nearly 15,000 words from readers and 65 emails -- suggesting examples that illustrate his idea, or something else to think about. Which made me think: Should scientists be doing more of this? As in, you've got a question you'd like to research, but you're not sure how best to conduct your experiment. Why not ask the scientific community? We've linkurl:written about moves; in this direction, such as Nature Precedings. Would scientists participate without poaching? We've also done some of our own experiments about linkurl:crowdsourcing; -- notably, a feature last September that asked readers how they thought linkurl:tenure; should change, which received over 100 comments. Thompson had all sorts of interesting ideas about how to get -- well, ideas. For instance, in front of the audience, he linkurl:logged onto his profile; on, which operates under a practically inexplicable premise, and asked: "Does anyone have a question they want to ask a room full of science journalists?" Twenty minutes or so later, he checked back and found six or so questions, including our opinion of the new movie "Jumper." One question, however, came from "Hermida" -- Alfred Hermida, an assistant professor at the graduate school of journalism at the University of British Columbia, who was in the audience and scheduled to speak today (February 20). His question: "Why aren't they on Twitter?" By the end of Thompson's one-hour presentation, Hermida had linkurl:posted a blog; about the talk on Editor's note (February 20): This blog has been updated from a previous version.


Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 19

February 20, 2008

Maybe it sounds like a nice idea... if you are a science journalist. But let's face it:\n\n1. many "hip" research lab homepages link to blogs maintained by lab members. They generally are around the line "uh, oh, yet another day when my experiments didn't work as I was expecting them to" and other nonsense like that. No, please don't tell me that they could get help: you need to know in fine detail what the protocol was like to be able to give an advice.\n\n2. I (and many of my colleagues) live under enough stress that we can't keep abreast with the 2-3 TOC (that's table of contents) alerts we get daily from serious/top publications. Plus eventually the Medline alert. Plus exchanging mails with collaborators overseas. Plus preparing for the next lab journal club, next departamental journal club, next group meeting. Oh, and then there are also the experiments to be done, almost forgot about them :-P \n\nWhen in the world to read 65 more e-mails, read 15,000 words (that's about 30-40 pages in your normal Times 12pt 1.5line spacing)?? And maybe answer to them, write comments on other blogs. \n\nNormal work day in the lab still has only about 12 hours, last time when I checked... Duh!
Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

February 20, 2008

One of the few online indulgences I have is reading one or two of these "The Scientist" articles and sounding off. :-) \n\nDear god. I don't have time to sort through oceans of twitter mostly blindingly dull for a few intelligent comments. And then sort through the intelligent comments to see if they have any relevance to moi? I think not! That's what science journalists do for a living. All you'se science journalists - congratulations! You have a job that won't go away! It's also what peer review is for, so I don't have to read an ocean of poorly written blather-all. \n\nBy the way, Mr. Anonymouse, you left out teaching classes and reviewing manuscripts for publication. Humpf! Methinks thou art a post-doc? Imagine what it is like for non-tenured teaching faculty? ;-)
Avatar of: Alaskan Rose

Alaskan Rose

Posts: 1

February 20, 2008

We do not have enough time in the day to work a blog, so why are we the only professionals who have no personal secretary to help us? They could keep us organized, prioritized, and work through all the clutter to maintain a blog for the lab. What makes independent scientists so special that we don't deserve a break and have some help? We need to step into the 21st century and get our message out to other scientists and the general public. Also, having someone organize and help with collaboration would propel our work substantially. It seems to me a win, win, situation to step into the 21st century and hire a professional to help us.

February 20, 2008

Regardless of whether there are enough hours in the day to conduct research in the lab *and* maintain a blog, personal writing not intended for publication can be an excellent way to flesh out ideas in a much more casual way than the usually dry--and let's face it--often dull end results that are reported in academic journals.\n\nBlogging is certainly personal writing, but put "out there," I think it can absolutely be a useful tool to generate feedback and different perspectives that may have otherwise gone overlooked.\n\nI think also that the kind of blog entries mentioned by another commenter (e.g. "Did X today, got Y, as expected") are missing the point, because no one cares. A more useful application of blogging would be to explore issues and questions from a more reflexive standpoint: "Did X today, and got Y, as expected. However, Jones (1985) suggests that ***, so I'm curious about the possible ramifications to my own research..."\n\nAnother potential use for blogging is along the lines of "question you'd like to ask a scientist" mentioned in the article. A complaint I've often heard made by researchers is that no one (i.e. the wider public) doesn't really care about what you're doing. Blogs can be a good medium for stripping away all the jargon in order to actually make science compelling and even inspiring.\n\nAnd you know, I often wonder about just how far along we could be if there was just a little less bickering, and a little more openness in our research. Blogging might be one avenue to achieve that.
Avatar of: Dave Knight

Dave Knight

Posts: 3

February 21, 2008

The anonymous poster actually made a good point about experiments that do not work that got me thinking in a bit of a different way.\n\nI've heard tell of scientists that would like a "journal of negative results" to be put out there where people could publish work that didn't have a desired effect. \n\nThis is a great idea I think to prevent people from wasting time and resources on projects that they had no idea someone had already done b/c the original experimenter has no way of letting people know it was a dead end except those they happen to network with directly and may mention in it conversation. This is inadequate in my opinion. \n\nWhy not go a little more informal than a journal and make a national/international blog of this type of work? I don't see where negative results need to be peer-reviewed and processed with such fervor as a journal article usually warrants.\n\nThink about how much time and money this could save if scientists simply plugged in a search of blog entries on their idea to see if someone had already done it and seen nothing.

February 22, 2008

Dave:\n\nIn principle, this might not be a bad idea. However: knowing that an experiment did not work does not mean it's not possible to conduct it in a successful manner. We all know of people who managed to get results where others failed [and I mean GET as opposed to FABRICATED ]. It's like having a "green thumb".\n\nSo I think information in such a journal/blog should be taken with a grain of salt: did not work for you, maybe it works (the same way) for me. Or maybe I try it, but in a different way.\n\nMore important, though, I think it would be publishing *ideas* which failed. As in "the experiment did work, positive and negative results as expected, but the result disproved my hypothesis". Not all such experiments warrant publication in peer-reviewed journals and maybe not many are willing to spend for 9 months time and energy to get them through. And in this case, sure, others will waste time and resources (and pre- and post-docs bones will lie bleached on the sands of science) to perform that experiment without knowing they are heading for a negative, almost-unpublishable result.\n\nFor such a scenario, indeed, peer-review will be "from the masses", à la arXiv.

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